Red alert: Ridley Scott's The Martian blasts off
Alien director Ridley Scott is back in space for his latest blockbuster sci-fi, The Martian, starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on the 'red planet'. David Roy strapped in for an epic, visually stunning adventure in 3D
HAVING taken a pounding from fans and critics with the unfairly under-appreciated 'don't call it an Alien prequel' Prometheus, it would have been understandable if Ridley Scott was in no hurry to venture into outer space again.
However, with a sequel to his 2012 misfire currently bubbling away in the background, the Geordie film-maker has made a canny decision to adapt Andy Weir's hit novel, The Martian.
Weir struck gold with his debut book about a lone astronaut stranded on Mars who must use every ounce of his space savvy to survive until the boffins on Earth can come up with a rescue plan.
Screenwriter Drew Goddard does an excellent job of stripping back the novel's exposition-heavy prose to the bare essentials, judiciously pruning some of the perils and pitfalls that astro-botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) must negotiate while also keeping us as abreast as we need to be with Nasa's race-against-the-clock rescue effort as the deadly ticking clock counts ever downward.
Filming in 3D, Scott, his regular cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Prometheus, Exodus) and visual effects team MPC bring Mars's stunningly rendered desert landscape to the screen in a breathtaking manner.
Indeed, The Martian looks fantastic whether we're accompanying Watney on his forays beyond the safety of the HAB (the astronauts' living quarters) to accomplish several risky yet essential tasks, or cooped up indoors as he attempts to problem solve his way home.
In the wake of an exciting opening sequence, which sees Damon's character marooned and presumed dead when his crew (including Michael Pena, Jessica Chastain and Kate Mara) are forced to flee Mars to avoid a freak weather event, the stricken spaceman begins documenting his survival.
His self-consciously narrated-to-camera reports on the station's video log give us a sense of Watney's character: as in the novel, he's a smart arse with plenty of brainpower to back-up his grandstanding.
There are definitely worse people you could be stuck in space with: Sandra Bullock's laughably witless astronaut in Gravity, for example.
Damon is a natural for the role and Scott's film easily knocks Afonso Cuaron's absurdly over-praised story vacuum into a cocked space helmet in terms of its entertainment value.
Weir's book was often described as a cross between Apollo 13 and Castaway – Scott capably combines the mounting tension of the former space misadventure with the tragicomic humanity of the latter's Robinson Crusoe-esque tale.
Problem one for Watney is how to stay alive for a much longer period than the original mission plan – four years, to be precise, which is when the next manned Mars mission is scheduled to drop by.
Luckily, there are some vacuum-packed spuds among the crew's rations that he might be able to space farm into bland sustenance: creating a viable irrigation system for such crops is just one potentially explosive problem Watney faces.
Happily, it turns out that Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Nasa head honcho Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and the rest of the Houston team are aware of their latest problem (whose death they've already announced).
They set about establishing communications with their man while formulating a plan to return to Mars ASAP.
The ensuing barrage of astrophysical number crunching and sweaty browed scientific problem solving in both realms is offset by occasional outbreaks of gallows levity.
For example, Watney's only distraction from his perilous potato-fuelled purgatory comes via the recreational materials left behind by his departed crewmates: a Happy Days box set and his captain's cache of 70s disco hits. Cue the Fonz-references and an ABBA-backed montage.
The Martian is Ridley Scott's most satisfyingly solid film since American Gangster, perhaps even Gladiator, one that reminds us (and Hollywood) that it's actually possible to marry state-of-the-art visuals to a simple but effectively told story.
Suddenly, Prometheus II is looking like an altogether more attractive prospect.
The Martian (12A, 141mins)
Starring: Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Benedict Wong, Kate Mara, Michael Pena
Director: Ridley Scott